Rethinking conversations: the role of the adult is created through the thinking and experiences of the child – Iorio

Jeanne Marie Iorio points out that: “As teachers, researchers, caregivers, and people who take care of children, we are often in conversation with children. Yet, how often do we really spend time thinking about the act of speaking with a child? How do we choose our words and thoughts in responding to children within conversations? Who holds the power in adult–child conversations? These questions are central to my rethinking, as an artist and educator, of adult–child conversations as aesthetic experiences. Maxine Greene (1995) speaks of how imagination ‘permits us to give credence to alternative realities’ (p. 3). I see the arts in combination with the voices of children as a space where imagination can thrive, attempting to find the ‘alternative realities’ of adult–child conversations. It is my understanding of power structures within traditional adult–child conversation that leads me to attempt to reconstruct adult-child conversation using my own imagination as a means to create a new interpretation (Greene, 1995).” (p.281)

Some of Iorio’s arguments for aesthetizing this interaction/experience are really interesting… and include the following statements:

Positioning theory delineates the placement of the child and adult engaging in discourse: ‘Within a conversation each of the participants always positions the other while simultaneously positioning himself or herself’ (Harré & Langenhove, 1999, p. 22). Power contributes to the position each participant takes on in an adult–child conversation. ‘There are multiple positions in any one context, each with its own set of possibilities, but none with the potential of exposing everything’ (Berghoff, 1997, p. 4). Ellsworth (1997) uses the film studies concept of ‘modes of address’ as a method of understanding power and position within a conversation. ‘Modes of address include the content of a message and how that content is conveyed and shaped by who we think we are and by who we think those we are addressing are’ (Novinger, 2003, p. 427). The modes of address in adult–child conversation reveal how and why content, gestures, questions, and answers are delivered and gathered within the interaction, often exposing discrepancies between the expectations and intentions of the participants (Elbers, 2004).” (p.282)

The child is often viewed by the adult as unable to engage in an unstructured conversation (Zander, 2003). Therefore, the adult–child conversation emerges as an unbalanced power relationship. There are alternate ways to imagine the child, challenging power inequities within the interactive dialogues. It is in these alternative perceptions that the possibility of adult–child conversations as aesthetic experiences begins to emerge. In ‘Teaching as a Sacrament’, Johnson encourages the teacher ‘to accept the mystery of spiritual presence and the intense meaningfulness that presence gives to human experience’ (Johnson, 1999, p. 107).” (p.282)

Childhood is understood as an essential part of life (Matthews, 1994) and exists as an ‘imaginary homeland’ (Silin, 2000), always present and informing adulthood. Part of childhood is the fundamental facet of wonder: as children encounter the real world their ‘eyes will see it as more and more charged with marvels’ (Cavalletti, 1983, p. 139). By embracing wonder, childhood is recognized as an ‘on-going, open-ended experience’ (Silin, 2003, p. 19), ‘the having of wonderful ideas’ (Duckworth, 1987, p. 1), influencing the construction of the adult role.
Cavalletti (1983) describes how adults should give children space to spend time with an object in order to see the object as if it were never seen before. Hawkins (1974) uses the phrase ‘messing about’ to discuss these ‘ways of learning’ (p. 60). While the child is messing about, the adult must ‘observe, and record, take in, and reflect, stay still for a while, listen, research, and attend’ (Ayers, 2003, p. 20). Thus, the role of the adult is created through the thinking and experiences of the child: ‘For a child is alive and moving – always on a journey – so the teacher must be moving too – every conclusion tentative and written in disappearing ink’ (Ayers, 2003, p. 20). As the child contemplates, the adult attends, sharing the power of teaching and learning, conceiving a place for an aesthetic experience.” (p.283)

Iorio transcribes two conversations with children “in a format inspired by the transcription theory work of Elinor Ochs (1979). Traditionally,” she explains, “transcripts of conversations are presented in a linear fashion, conferring a definite impression of cause and effect. By reformatting the appearance of the conversations, the adult is taken out of a position of ‘dominance and control’ (Ochs, 1979, p. 49). Through the repositioning of the adult, I hoped to bring the child into a more prominent place of power within conversations, possibly realizing a more shared power relationship between the child and the adult.” (p.283)

In the present construct of school, the tenet of right and wrong is the dominant power, placing the unknown in an insignificant position. Currently, it is implied by policy, curriculum, and school structure that the child is a blank slate, meant to be filled with knowledge determined by the dominant administrative powers, for example, the practices related to No Child Left Behind…. A paradigm shift of school structure must occur in order for a rethinking of adult–child conversations as aesthetic experiences to become present. How can this shift occur? What supports need to be in place before the shift can happen? How do environments, teacher preparation, research, and values need to change (or stay the same)?” (p.286)

Concluding the article, Iorio observes: “considering adult–child conversations as a work of art implores another question. Inspired by Nelson Goodman’s (1978) question ‘When is art?’, when is an adult–child conversation an aesthetic experience? If an adult–child conversation is an aesthetic experience, when are the moments when it exists as art? Certain conditions and situations must be present to have the conversation perform as art. What are the characteristics of an adult–child conversation as an aesthetic experience? Do the criteria of these conversations have to be consistent for the aesthetic experience to exist?

“After presenting a draft of my article to a group of colleagues, my own perspective of adult–child conversation was challenged. If I was truly attempting to disrupt the power of traditional adult–child conversations, should I not consider child–adult conversations? In each of the conversations I had included in the article, I, as the teacher, was always first. How does my own positioning within the conversations change power dynamics? Is shared power present within the conversations? In conjunction with the conception of children’s words in conversation as a work of art, child–adult conversation seems to make more sense.” (p.286)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Jeanne Marie Iorio (2006) Rethinking conversations Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 7(3), 281-289

ABSTRACT As teachers, researchers, caregivers, and people who take care of young children, we are often in conversation with children. These conversations are complex, filled with child and adult interactions. Further, both the child and the adult hold various levels of power, and work as a group within the interaction. As an artist and early childhood educator, these considerations are central to the author’s own rethinking of adult-child conversations as aesthetic experiences. Through the observation and documentation of several adult–child conversations with three preschoolers, the author attempts to understand when an adult–child conversation is an aesthetic experience, as well as to negotiate the power present within the interaction. Further, the author discusses the implications of the experience on her own practice and future research.

Reference is to: Elbers, E. (2004) Conversational Asymmetry and the Child’s Perspective in Developmental and Educational Research, International Journal of Disability, Development, and Education, 51(2), pp. 201-215.

Ochs, E. (1979) Transcription as Theory, in E. Ochs & B. Schieffelin (Eds) Developmental Pragmatics, pp. 43-72. New York: Academic Press.

Silin, J.G. (2000) Real Children in Imagined Homelands, in N. Nager & E.K. Shapiro (Eds) Revisiting the Progressive Pedagogy: the developmental-interaction approach. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Silin, J.G. (2003) The Future in Question, Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 19(2), pp. 9-23.

Zander, M.J. (2003) Talking, Thinking, Responding and Creating: a survey of literature on talk in art education, Studies in Art Education, 44(2), pp. 117-134.


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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